Washington — Jewish Democrats are turning a spotlight on social issues — and particularly the dangers posed to Medicare and Medicaid — as a way to counter Republican attempts to use President Obama’s contentious relations with Israel to capture more Jewish votes.
This strategy was first tested in late May in a New York State special congressional election, when the National Jewish Democratic Council played a key role in securing votes for its successful candidate. According to the NJDC, what most motivated Jewish voters in this election and will galvanize them in 2012 is the fear that House Republicans will cut Medicare benefits for seniors. The issue has since been raised again in Florida, home to a large Jewish senior citizen population.
By making Medicare a political wedge issue, Democrats are relying not only on the demography of the Jewish community, which is considered to have the largest percentage of members older than 75 of any religious group in America. They are also relying on the historic Jewish affinity to social justice issues and to the creation of a social safety net for all.
“I don’t think Medicare should be cut,” said Harriet Volk, a retired New York teacher who now resides at Leisure World retirement community in Silver Spring, Md. “It’s a good program. It comes from the old days, when the government used to do good things.”
Concerns regarding the future of government-funded services for the poor and elderly surfaced in April as the House Republicans presented their plan for next year’s budget, which included reforms that would cut funding for Medicare and Medicaid. According to the plan by Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, Medicare services would be privatized and turned into a voucher system. Medicaid would also undergo a significant change and would be funded through block grants to states. Ryan’s budget proposal was adopted by the GOP-led House but was later defeated in the Senate. Still, it remains on the table as the Republican baseline for budget discussions.
And while it is not clear if the proposal will ever take off, it has already become the No. 1 issue for Democrats in advance of the 2012 elections. The special elections held on May 24 in the 26th Congressional District of New York served as the first battleground for both parties. Democrats launched an aggressive campaign focused almost solely on the issue of Medicare and succeeded in winning in a district usually viewed as solidly Republican.
The NJDC weighed in on the New York race by making thousands of phone calls to the estimated 10,000 Jewish Democratic voters in the district to talk about Medicare. The phone messages warned voters that Republicans are planning to make extreme changes to Medicare programs “that Jewish seniors like my grandma rely upon every single day.”
Brad Bauman, NJDC’s communication director, said the group will continue to carry the message that Ryan’s plan is “out of touch” with the Jewish agenda. “In 2012, Jewish voters will turn out and say ‘absolutely not,’” Bauman added.
The group has also raised the issue in Florida, a key swing state with a large concentration of Jewish seniors who stand to be impacted by the proposed changes. The NJDC challenged Senate candidate George LeMieux to announce, in advance of a May 10 appearance in front of a Jewish audience, that he would not support the House budget plan. LeMieux did not respond. But another Republican candidate for the Florida seat was quick to openly embrace Ryan’s cuts. Jewish candidate Adam Hasner said he supports the plan in full. “In fact, my only complaint is that it may not go far enough, fast enough,” he said.
There could be good political sense in basing the pitch to Jewish voters on the issue of cuts to social safety net programs. The Jewish community has always been ardent in its support of these entitlements and among the leaders in the fight for their preservation. The reasons Jews are enthusiastic about Medicare, said Jared Feldman, deputy Washington director for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, have to do both with the moral aspect and with the fact that the Jewish community is aging and is increasingly in need of such services. “If there are thoughts of contracting the programs, it will affect our aging community,” Feldman said, “but we are just one slice of the broader problem.”
Medicare is a widely popular program, with enrollment rates topping 90%. Among Jews, said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, there is strong support for the program both from those who are enjoying its benefits and from the community as a whole. “There is a substantial consensus in the Jewish community that we need to maintain the core of these programs,” Saperstein said. He also noted that American Jews have been overwhelmingly supportive of entitlement plans ever since the New Deal, and that many of the key players in building Medicare and Medicaid were Jews who joined the government in order to advance the goals of social justice.
Two polls conducted before the 2010 midterm elections confirmed that Jewish voters are more concerned with health care and social programs than they are with policy toward Israel. According to a J Street poll, Jewish voters think more about health care and the economy than about Israel when deciding how to vote. A survey by the American Jewish Committee found that 16% of American Jews see Social Security and Medicare as an important issue in deciding whom to support, while only 10% said they see Israel as a key factor.
Changing funding policies for the key entitlement programs could mean trouble for Republicans not only with Jewish voters, but also with the Jewish institutions that usually attempt to maintain a nonpartisan approach. B’nai B’rith International recently issued a statement in which it said the group is “disturbed and frankly surprised by the attempt to privatize Medicare.”
And while individuals in the community are looking with concern at the prospect of shrinking Medicare services when they become eligible, communal groups are focusing attention on Medicaid, which provides health care for the poor. Many Jewish seniors in nursing homes become dependent on Medicaid when they require long-term care and their insurance and Medicare funds are not enough to cover the costs.
Sixty percent of all government money going to the Jewish communities is from Medicaid, and most is used to fund nursing homes. According to Ryan’s plan, Medicaid would become a block grant program, a move that independent research groups found would lead to cuts of more than $1 trillion over the next decade and will require a significant decrease in services.
“When this is the biggest funding source of the community and there will be these huge cuts, that’s a real source of concern,” said Ethan Roberts, director of government affairs at the JCRC of Minnesota & the Dakotas. Roberts, who is fighting proposed cuts on the state level, argued that slashing Medicaid funding would not only cause hardship to seniors in the community, but could also deal a blow to the entire federation system, which will have to provide the money to make up for the gap in funding its nursing homes. “How will the federations have any money to do anything else if we have to cover for such a cut?” he asked.
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com